Chapter 17: Expectation

(Several Months Later)

You look like you're glad to be back in our little hideout," Renji commented, smiling as Torio deposited a large tray of food in front of the noble, where he sat in bed.

"I am," agreed Byakuya, "Although I need to get out occasionally and I do appreciate having competent people watching over me during my gestation, I rather dislike spending too much time around Urahara and his cohorts."

"I feel your pain," Renji said, shaking his head, "You're right that Kisuke and those kids are pretty damned merciless with the teasing."

He stifled an amused chuckle as the normally stoic and proper noble dove into his meal, looking as though he had been deprived of food nearly to the end of his tolerance.

"Hey, don't make a mistake and devour your fingers," he joked.

Byakuya frowned at him and continued eating.

"Although, watching you put that food away like that is strangely sexy..."

"Wh...what?" queried Byakuya, looking offended.

"Don't get mad," Renji laughed, sliding into the bed beside him and stealing a bread roll from his tray, "You're just really cute when you are eating, that's all."

"You must be drunk on the pheromones I'm secreting because of the pregnancy," Byakuya concluded, scowling at the redhead as Renji blocked his hand as he tried to take a bite of his food, and attacked his mouth with sharp, nipping kisses.

"Yeah, probably, but whatever the reason, I just want to slow down and enjoy this."

Byakuya gave him a slightly nostalgic smile.

"Well, we certainly have no shortage of time while I gestate. And you will not find me resistant to any advances you make..."

He captured Renji's hand as he tried to steal a bite of the noble's dessert.

"As long as you are respectful of certain boundaries, of course," he said, glaring at the redhead.

"O-kay..." mused the redhead, "He suddenly likes sweets now."

"What? I do not," insisted the noble.

"Well, you couldn't tell by the way you nearly took my arm off when I tried to steal your dessert. And come to think of it, why even have dessert if you don't like sweets?"

"I do not like sweets," Byakuya explained, "but apparently, pregnancy makes me crave savory, spicy and sweet."

"All at once?" queried the redhead, laughing as he made another try at Byakuya's dessert and had his hand swatted away by the petulant noble.

"Sheesh, not very generous today, are you?" he said, pretending to sulk.

"I am showing acceptable generosity in not tossing you off the bed for trying to abscond with my meal. I thought you just ate."

"I did, but Torio's a damned good cook. I'm gonna get fat if he keeps this up."

"Then perhaps, to make sure that neither of us suffers the effects of inactivity, we should go for a long walk."

"But you're still eating," the redhead objected, "and judging by the size of that cute little pot belly of yours, I think the kid won't be satisfied if you eat like a bird."

Byakuya frowned.

"I've been eating constantly since I woke," he said, sounding offended, "and you should know that in actuality, birds eat quite a large amount in comparison to their weight. And how dare you refer to the pregnant rounding on my abdomen as a 'pot belly!' If you continue to annoy me, you can just sleep in one of the extra bedrooms. I'll likely get more sleep anyway without you snoring so loudly all night!"

"Ooh, sorry there," Renji chuckled, "Touched a nerve, huh? All right, all right, I'm sorry I said anything about your eating habits or your very adorable, normal for pregnancy, belly! M-maybe we should just take that walk. I think you've been inside too much today. You're kinda cranky."

"Very well," the noble replied, "But I would rather like to finish eating first."

"That is all right," said Torio, "Michio still needs to assist Abarai-san with his bathing and dressing, so he can keep him occupied to he will not continue to try to steal your food."

"Ah...all right," sighed Renji, "I guess I can resign myself to go and get pampered for awhile while you finish stuffing yourself."

"One more word, Abarai!" Byakuya said, shaking his head and turning his attention back to his meal as Renji walked out the door.

His eyes turned more solemn as the liveliness of Renji's presence left him.

"Torio," he said quietly, "Would you go and prepare my clothing?"

"Of course, sir," the young man said amiably, "I will be right back to collect your dishes."

Byakuya waited until Torio had gone to set aside his food and climb out of bed. He moved out of the room and into the gardens, where he dropped down beneath his favorite sakura tree.

I do not know what is wrong with me. There is nothing but peace and contentment around me now. I have no real responsibilities, no pressures, no expectations placed upon me. As much as it was a relief to leave the Seireitei, to get away from those manipulating bastards, I cannot help but remember who I was...how my grandfather told me that it eased his mind to know that they would not be left to their own devices, but would be guided by one with vision, passion and dedication. Our house is a prideful house, and keeping our place amongst the noble houses is no easy thing.

I wonder if they still search for us, or if they believe that I will not return now, and they have gone on. I wonder if they have taken possession of the manor, if they have changed the buildings or gardens, or if everything is as it was before, and the only thing that has changed is me.

I thought that all I wanted was to be with Renji and to share the bearing and raising of this child with him. But there is, it seems much more to who I am than that. When my father died, when my grandfather left to serve the king, they each gave over to me a sacred trust. Without words, they told me that they wanted me to preserve their legacy, to hold together these vain and sometimes reckless people that are our family, and to set an example of what nobility is really supposed to be.

I knew that they were not the essence of nobility. It is not about the material things, about the wealth or the privileges. Nobility is being a strong example to others...to express the values that we and the others should strive for...the values that make Renji and I such a good match for each other. Love. Dedication. Protection. Pursuit of excellence. Adherence to our laws. Honesty. Dignity. Honor. But, hidden away as we are, we keep these values to ourselves. We have abandoned many of the ones that I was responsible for. Yes, they were horrid and their behavior was unforgivable. But my father and grandfather entrusted them to me, and my heart knows that I am responsible, even though I have come away from them to have this child without their interference. After our child is born, I am going to have to return to set things right again. Renji knows I do not want this...that it is the dictates of duty that I am responding to. And he might, perhaps say that I act this way for the wrong reasons and should instead, follow my heart and leave them.

If not for what I promised my father and grandfather, I might be able to do that. But having made those promises, I cannot make a lie of them. I have no choice but to honor them. But how will I make Renji understand? He has never had any family but the ones he made...first as a brother figure to Rukia, then as a spouse to me. To Renji, it is simple and straightforward. Those people hurt us, so we should be rid of them. Letting go of them is no weight to him because he is used to thinking of family as something you choose and build yourself. But, he wasn't born into a family that someone trusts him to take care of, as wicked as they can be.

So, how will I make him understand?

Byakuya felt tears in his eyes and, impacted by the hormones of pregnancy, had no ability to hold them back. He sat very still, making no sound and letting them run freely down his proud face, trying not to think of how weak he must seem, compared to the strong person he had been.

I won't be sorry for leaving as I did. But the truth is that my leaving hurt the stability of our family and threatened the legacy that this child will inherit. I would offer this child a chance to lead our family, to make the Kuchiki family worthy of that place it holds in our society. Yes, that is what this comes down to...freedom or legacy. Renji values freedom over legacy, and there is nothing wrong with him doing that. He grew up thinking of building a legacy by creating a family. I grew up with a family already in place and the responsibility of maintaining our legacy.

But...if Renji works towards building a legacy, then does that mean that he actually does favor legacy? Or is he trying to honor both?

I do not know what to do now.

I was so hurt and infuriated by what they tried to do to us. But really, it is not all of them, but a select few powerful ones among them. There are many in the family who never did me any wrong, who gave me their trust when I became their leader. And whatever the circumstances, when I left the family, I violated that trust. I hurt those who never did me any wrong, and I failed to take care of them, as was my responsibility.

Is it right for me to wash my hands of them?

To abandon them and leave them to those traitors?

"Byakuya-sama..." Torio whispered, looking out through the garden doors and spotting the forlorn looking figure, kneeling beneath the sakura tree and shedding silent tears, "Why is your heart so burdened?"

He watched quietly for a moment, then turned back and walked back to the bedroom, where Michio was just finishing dressing Renji. The redhead glanced up at him, smiling as he entered the room.

"Hey, Torio," Renji said casually, "Where's my lovely, pregnant spouse? You lose him somewhere?"

"Erm...n-not exactly, Renji-san. I know where he is, but..."

Renji's grin faded slightly.

"Is something wrong?" he asked, "He's not sick, right? I knew he shouldn't have eaten all of that..."

"He is not ill," said Torio, shaking his head, "But, he is not well, either."

"What's that mean? He's either okay or not. And if he's not, then what are we doing talking about it? We should be doing something to fix it."

"Ah...I do not know if it is something that will be easy to fix. Renji-san, I have noticed a melancholy about him lately."

"Yeah," agreed Renji, "I've noticed it too. But, pregnant people often suffer from that. It isn't strange."

"But...it is not just that he is depressed, sir. He often sheds tears. It is odd, though. He just sits there quietly and looks perfectly calm, but tears run down his face and he just looks so...lonely."

"Is he like this now?" the redhead asked, his eyes narrowing worriedly.

"Yes, sir. That's why I came to you. Renji-san's presence always seems to have a good effect on him. Please, sir, go to him now. I can't bear to see Byakuya-sama so unhappy!"

Renji nodded and flash stepped away from the two attendants, who exchanged worried glances.

"Is he really so unhappy?" Michio asked, "He seemed pleased to get away from the family and to be alone with Renji-san. What do you think is wrong?"

Torio sighed and sat down on the bed.

"I'm not so sure," he admitted, "But I think he feels guilty for leaving."

"What?" asked Michio, "But Torio, they..."

"I know. But Byakuya-sama has always been a good leader, who cared about everyone. And just because some of them betrayed him, doesn't take away his feelings for the others. I think it hurts him to have left them behind."

XXXXXXXXXX

Byakuya took a startled breath and turned his head aside, hurriedly brushing the tears away from his eyes as Renji's arms wrapped around him from behind and the redhead's warm lips made a line of affectionate kisses down the side of his neck.

"What are you doing out here?" the redhead asked, "You left a pile of food on your tray in there. That's not like you. You have the attendants worried."

"I am sorry. I began to feel...nauseous."

"So, you came out here for some fresh air, ne?" Renji went on, "You want to take that walk now?"

"Ah...I do not think so. I feel...unwell."

"You want me to get Kisuke?" Renji offered.

"No. I do not think that it is serious. But, I do feel weary," the noble admitted.

"Yeah? Well, I have just the thing for weariness."

Byakuya glanced at him out of the corner of one gray eye.

"Do you?"

"Yeah," the redhead said, teasing the other man's earlobe with his tongue and letting his hand slip down to the tie on the noble's yukata.

Byakuya flinched and pulled away.

"R-renji, I do not feel up to..."

"Shh," the redhead whispered into his ear, "Take it easy. I'm not going to have sex with you."

"No?"

"Well," Renji said, smirking, "I would like very much to have sex with you. But...it kinda seems like there's something else you need right now."

"I am fine."

Renji scowled.

"Okay, don't feed me a line of shit like that. Have you forgotten that we are soul bonded? You think I don't know that something's been bothering you?"

"I..."

"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, but if you're going to sit there, making yourself miserable over whatever it is, I can at least make sure that you're comfortable while you're making yourself miserable."

"Abarai, you're not making sense at all," the noble complained, trying to pull away again, but only succeeding in becoming more deeply entrenched in the redhead's arms.

"Who, me?" Renji asked, rubbing his cheek against Byakuya's and slipping his hands underneath the noble's yukata to gently caress and infuse his belly with stabilizing reiatsu. Byakuya held up his resistance for all of about six seconds, then gave a sigh of surrender, closed his eyes and sank into the redhead's embrace.

"That's better," Renji breathed in his ear, sending soft, lovely shivers through him.

He barely felt when the redhead lowered him onto his back and opened his yukata, baring him, then continuing to kiss and touch him in a way that was comforting rather than erotic, relaxed and easy as opposed to seductive.

Almost as though he knows what I need without me saying anything. Maybe he does. Our bond has deepened since we arrived here. And it will continue to grow stronger as time goes on. And what a comfort that is...

But why does Renji seem to do all of the comforting? He was put through hell by what happened, and then by my family. But rather than to fall into despair, he has found solace here. He seems happy...much stronger now.

I wonder what has helped him to heal inside...

His mind went quiet then, and Byakuya focused on the warm, loving hands and lips that continued to play over his body. He drank in the redhead's loving whispers and felt his strength slowly returning.

What I was thinking before was flawed. I haven't abandoned my family, not by my thinking and not by Renji's. And as for the ones who trust me to lead them, I think that given the actions of the council, they will both understand my decision to leave for the duration of my pregnancy, and accept my return to leadership.

Yes...I will go back. And Renji accepts, even supports that the council's actions must be answered for. I only need to be calm and focus on this child, so that he or she will have a successful entry into the world. And when that is done and I have regained my strength, I will go back and make those people pay for nearly ruining our marriage before it had a chance to really begin.

Yes, things will get better. Everything will be all right. We just have to take care of each other...

Byakuya opened his eyes and met Renji's quietly for a moment, then he captured the redhead's face in both hands and fed his spouse several deep, warm, open-mouthed kisses. He lifted himself off the ground and felt the light tickle of sakura blossoms falling away from where they had collected on his skin. Still looking into Renji's curious eyes, he mounted the redhead, spreading his thighs wide and taking Renji's hot, thick member inside him in slow, unhurried thrusts. He laced their fingers together and continued the slow, writhing dance atop Renji's body, watching as the worry left the redhead's eyes, and they hazed over with deep affection and heady lust.

His fingers remained locked together with Renji's as the redhead brought them to his hips and clenched tightly, bucking upward into the noble's molten core and drawing low, feverish moans from his parted lips. Renji smiled as the melancholy left Byakuya's features completely, and his face was written over with affection, desire and the hint of oncoming ecstasy. His hands released Renji's and his body pitched forward, landing softly on the redhead's heaving chest as the noble's mouth hungrily sought his lover's. Their thrusts became hard and disjointed, and their eyes almost closed as they writhed together, feeling the cool touches of the breeze and the soft brush of petals falling onto them.

Renji's arm tightened around him suddenly, and Byakuya felt the intense explosion of the redhead's heat inside him. He gasp in with a gasping cry to the overwhelming beauty of climax, loosing Renji's name in a sweet, breathless hiss, then collapsing the rest of the way onto the redhead as his hot seed pulsed out onto their skin.

They fell headlong into a seemingly endless exchange of softer, sleepy kisses, then parted their bodies and laid, curled under the tree, letting the heavy enchantment of satedness carry them off towards sleep.

"Are you really okay now?" Renji asked softly, kissing him beneath a pale earlobe, "Because I felt like you weren't before."

"I am content now," Byakuya assured him, "And...the emotions that afflicted me have calmed...thank you."

"Hey," sighed Renji, "What are friends for?"

He is right. Renji is better than just a lover. He really is a friend when I need one. And when it is Renji who needs a friend...

From now on, I will be there for him that way too.